Monday, December 3, 2007

Day Three

Monday, December 3rd, 2007
Ojinika Obiekwe, WPIX-TV/CW 11 Morning News Producer
Photos by Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press

I thought I’d never have to say this and mean it, but “this was the longest day of my life” and the strangest part is that I’m not complaining about it. You see, I have issues sitting still or paying attention, but today was quite different. I had to not only sit still, I had to pay attention, I mean, really pay attention…
And I did it all because of one man. Not just any man, I’m talking about the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, whom we all had the honor and privilege to meet today. I know the other fellows, who for some reason like to give me a hard time, would say that I was forced to pay attention, because the president had a conversation with me. Some, (Cindy!!!!) might say that this “conversation” lasted only 10 seconds and she might be right, but who’s keeping time really? All that matters is that he and I had a moment, and we bonded.
Here’s what happened: We arrived at the Presidential Palace for the meeting. And when the President arrived, he greeted each and every one of us individually and we took our seats. NABJ President Barbara Ciara introduced all the fellows. Then it was time for the president to give his speech…so he started speaking and then paused for a second looked at me, and said “you are the most hardworking journalist I’ve ever met and I see a Pulitzer prize in your future.” Okay, maybe he didn’t really say those words but I know he was thinking it. But what he did tell me was that my name sounds Nigerian. And asked me if I’m from there. And boy, was he right. I am Nigerian, and when I told him that, he said that it shows he still knows his African countries. Oh and did I mention that he didn’t ask anyone else about their names. Not Barbara, not Regina, Bob, Khadijah, Travers, not even Kafia. Why didn’t he, you ask? I’m glad you asked that question and the answer is simple. I’m special, and the others? Hmmmm. And because I'm so special he promised to come hang out with me at the Unity Convention next July in Chicago.
Speaking of the president, to say that he was very nice and down to earth would be an understatement. He was very warm and welcoming and made us feel at home.
I can’t say I know that any heads of state, but I’m quite sure that not many of them would be as available, patient, and as kind as he was to us. He is a born leader. He has hopes, dreams and a vision for the country of Senegal. And I must say that the citizens of Senegal are lucky to have a man of his caliber to lead them to a better and brighter future.
I know many presidents and politicians make promises and talk about dreams that never become reality. President Wade is not one of those leaders. He is a man with a plan. And some might wonder how I can be so sure of his character after just knowing him for a couple of hours. I would say that I’m a good judge of character. I really am. There was nothing pretentious about him. He outlined his plans for education, health issues and the climate change issues that plague Senegal. These are some of the issues we’ll be reporting on during our stay here. So stay tuned!!!!

Cindy George
Staff Writer
Houston Chronicle

Africa isn’t what most Americans think.
And the Senegalese people want Americans to know that.
Lions? Tigers? Bears? Haven’t seen any.
There’s a perception that Africa is so far away. The reality? A commercial airliner can get you from New York to Africa in less than eight hours.
The Senegalese are emphatic. They want their brothers and sisters of the Diaspora who are living in the United States to know the real Senegal.
This is my first trip to Africa and the misconceptions I carry as an American, beyond my academic training, are striking.
I suppose I expected the government leaders in a post-colonial, independent country in Sub-Saharan black Africa to be, well, black people, but it is stunning to meet black person after black person running a nation. These were well-educated, well-dressed, multilingual black people.
This is Africa.
On the Dakar streets, you’ll see crude chariots pulled by disinterested horses and mules beside a near-parade of shiny Mercedes and Land Rovers in some sections of town. Men in suits with briefcases operate beside women in colorful traditional garb carrying fruit or water on their heads.
This is Africa.
So many contradictions abound. Like pre-Katrina New Orleans, there are palatial homes next door to shacks. This too is Africa.
I’ve never met George Bush, neither one of them in fact, but I now have met a head of state: His Excellency Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal.
He is a man bent on building a better country through more educated people with greater resources. He is focused on reducing the high cost of oil to his nation by cutting better deals with energy companies that require more profits for Senegal. And, he is serious about companies leery about how money left behind to benefit the country is spent – or misspent. President Wade says: Keep the money in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, but when I come calling, you show up and build a school, build a hospital or build the roads that we need.
He has great ambitions for this relatively young country.
The man who translated his French into English for us, Mohamed Camara, chatted in Japanese with Regina and when Kafia told him she was Somali, he piped up with a Somali greeting. This man spoke 15 languages! He also told us he lived in New York for 20 years and popped off some East Coast slang to prove it. Amazing.
This is Africa.
In our meeting with cabinet-level ministers later Monday, we had the chance to ask questions about HIV/AIDS, malaria, infant mortality, alternative energy and education. In the end, several of the ministers emphasized their concern about the perceptions of Africa in the West and specifically the United States.
“Indeed the media sells a very negative image of Africa, generally,” the minister of information, also a medical doctor, told us in French as interpreted in English by a translator. The minister said he wishes media reports would focus on health and education instead of African conflict.
“Besides the wars that are being shown on a daily basis, it is like the United States of Africa are fighting,” he said. “We do not manufacture weapons. …Who is making these weapons? Certainly not us.”
He said the real war is the battle to represent the Continent with a greater sense of balance and reality plus the challenge of African leaders to develop their countries.
“Africa is fighting to recover its dignity and stand on its own two feet,” he said.
The minister of the environment said he often finds himself correcting misconceptions, even while on a stop at his favorite donut franchise. The minister asked the businessman why the U.S. company was not investing in Africa.
“He said to me: ‘Africa is so far — so far.’ I asked him: Do you know how long it would take you to go to Africa? – and he didn’t know. You are investing in Asia. It will take you at least 25 flying hours or more. Dakar is only eight hours away. He said: ‘Well, I didn’t know that. I wasn’t aware.’”
The minister concluded that the mistaken beliefs were “mere ignorance.”
“Africa is behind the end of the world,” he said, in jest.
Hopefully, this trip will help our readers, our American readers, better understand Africa.